Ethiopia's Feyisa Lilesa crossed his arms above his head at the finish line of the Men's Marathon event as a protest against the Ethiopian government's crackdown on political dissent on August 21.

Editor’s Note: Awol K. Allo is LSE Fellow in Human Rights at the Centre for the Study of Human Rights. He writes on the issues behind several months of protests by Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group, the Oromos. Around 100 people died following clashes with security forces and demonstrators at the weekend, according to Amnesty International.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.

Story highlights

Ethiopian marathon runner made a protest gesture at Rio finish line

Feyisa Lilesa says the Ethiopian government persecutes the Oromo people

He fears being killed or imprisoned if he returns to Ethiopia

London CNN  — 

Body signs and gestures can be misinterpreted or misrecognized by those to who they are directed. They may also be used in radically different ways and in new and unexpected places.

That is the story of Feyisa Lilesa’s gesture at the Rio Olympics, directed to the global audience as he crossed the Olympic marathon finish line in 2 hours, 9 minutes and 54 seconds to win the silver medal. No one quite understood what this seemingly innocuous gesture, putting hands above head as in “X”, was about, until Lilesa himself explained the message behind his uncommonly courageous act of solidarity.

Lilesa told journalists, “The Ethiopian government is killing my people, so I stand with all protests anywhere”, referring to the nine month protest movement by the Oromo people.

Lilesa used this extraordinary opportunity to tell a world largely indifferent to suffering in distant places about the story of his people, the Oromo, who have been oppressed and silenced by subsequent Ethiopian governments. For him, something more fundamental is at stake than his Olympic medal - a momentous achievement in itself - and he wanted this fundamental issue to be the subject of the post-race press conference and the award ceremony. ‘I am protesting for my people’, he said.

The Oromos have been protesting since November of 2015 against ongoing marginalization, repression and targeted persecution by the government. They have been dying in hundreds just to be heard by the very government that oppresses them and those beyond their shores, which enable their oppression.

According to Human Rights watch, security forces killed more than 500 protestors and detained thousands, and the international community is still indifferent. Lilesa’s transformative act of solidarity propelled the Oromo people and their grievance to the global public conscience. Now, a considerable number of people are talking and writing about Oromos and their stories.

Oromos comprise well over a third of Ethiopia’s 100 million people while Tigray, the ethnic group that dominates every aspect of Ethiopia’s political life, constitutes six percent of the population. Oromos also feel that they have no genuine and credible representation in this government.

The Oromo Peoples’ Democratic Organization (OPDO), which purportedly represents the Oromo people in government, was created by the Tigray Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF), from Oromo speaking war captives. Rather than being representatives of the Oromo people in government, the OPDO is perceived by Oromos as representatives of the TPLF in Oromia, the largest region in Ethiopia.

Despite being the single largest ethnic group in the country, Oromos do not have the political and economic influence commensurate with their numbers.

This relationship of domination and exploitation between the various ethnic groups in Ethiopia is maintained through a range of violent and coercive measures.

‘I am protesting for my people’

The recent explosion in the criminalization and incarceration of Oromos is the result of legal and political machinations designed to facilitate the disproportionate policing, prosecution, and conviction of Oromos. Lilesa said, “My relatives are in prison and if they talk about democratic rights they are killed.”

Among notable Oromo political leaders who are in jail is Bekele Gerba. Gerba is First Vice Chairman of the Oromo Federalist Congress Party (OFC), and a prominent land-rights campaigner. He is a fierce advocate of non-violent struggle driven by idealism and a vision for a free and democratic Ethiopia. In an interview with the Guardian two years ago, he explained rather eloquently the ideals and principles that drove him to speak truth to power at great personal risk. “As human beings we deserve democracy, human rights, rule of law”, he insisted, “Until we get it, we’ll go on demanding it, even at the cost of our own lives.”

When the Oromo Protests broke out throughout Ethiopia’s Oromia region, Gerba supported the protest, underscoring the importance of a peaceful and nonviolent popular struggle. In an extreme case of expediency made legal, Gerba and 21 other senior members of the OFC were charged under the country’s notorious anti-terrorism law.

The charges against Gerba and others are nothing more than the frosting on the cake of perpetual eliminations designed to consolidate the supremacy of ethnic Tigrayan elites. Characterized by the intrusion of fiction into the realm of truth and justice, these trials are used by the government to deceive the international community and distort a more enduring and much deeper political crisis. They are microcosms of the larger war of repression and marginalization against the Oromo carried out by legal means.

Historical Irony

This is not the first time the Olympic stage was used as an occasion to draw the spotlight on political issues. In 1968, two African Americans, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, used the forum to draw the spotlight on the horrendous treatment of blacks by the United States government. Fifty years later, in 2016, an Oromo from Ethiopia is using the same site to tell the world about the oppression of his people by the Ethiopian government and its primary enabler, the United States government.

As the zenith of this government are two African Americans, President Barak Obama and Ambassador Susan Rice, Obama’s national security advisor, who are seen as instrumental in enabling and legitimizing the oppression of the Oromo and other oppressed people in Ethiopia.

One could argue that they are simply pursuing the policies of the United States government but it is very difficult to find any administration or high ranking official who took the unusual steps taken by the two. In a 2012 speech in Ethiopia, Rice essentially transformed Ethiopia’s long time dictator, Meles Zenawi, into a saint.

In 2015, Obama stood side by side with the Ethiopian government, which claimed to have won 100% of the seats at both national and local levels, and praised as an economic success story and described its government as “democratically elected.” Obama and Rice used their influence to sustain and consolidate Ethiopia’s system of ethnic oppression.

As public figure in his own right, a silver medalist in one of the world’s greatest sporting events, Lilesa used this privileged stage to contradict the narratives of the Ethiopian state and its Western enablers. Far from merely contesting the “Ethiopia rising” narrative produced and disseminated by the Ethiopian government with the help of its loud-speakers, his gesture also destabilizes the West’s consensus on Ethiopia as an oasis of stability in an otherwise combustible region.

Lilesa’s gesture is significant for the Oromo and other oppressed people in Ethiopia and beyond. Against the claims of these all too powerful actors, Lilesa used the Olympic stage to tell the world that the way Oromos and other oppressed people in Ethiopia live is contrary to these narratives.